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Prof's English Blog

10 May 2014
The War on Hyperbole

The other day I gave my order to the waitress who responded by saying 'Perfect!'. Then she trundled off to get my food, leaving me to wonder what exactly had been 'perfect' about the process of asking for a three-egg omelette. Of course, 'perfect' here meant nothing like 'absolute and ideal' which the word actually means, but instead meant 'all right, okay'.

Inflation in language is increasing, as inflation is wont to do. There was a time when 'incredible' meant unbelievable, instead of merely remarkable, and an 'incredible person' was someone who could not be believed or trusted rather than a person to admire. In marketing 'incredible' has come to mean something like 'average' as the 'incredible' offers on TV demonstrate every night. Along the same lines, I note that a firm is now advertising its new 'plusPro' technology in advertisements. Perhaps they should get right ahead of the competition by using all the meaningless buzzwords in one go with a 'new superElite Ecoplus Platinumpro Extra' brand?

Perhaps the most gratuitously over-used word in the modern lexicon is 'war'. Wars used to be simple. Nasty, bloody and terrifying; but simple. They were periods of temporary madness when societies tried very hard to kill each other by any means possible. However, 'war' is the kind of evocative word which media and politicians love to abuse. So we got the 'war on drugs' which was less of a 'let's kill everybody type' of war, but was a mix of police actions and legislation. This was followed by the 'war on terror' which would be admirable, except that when you think about it, the phrase is pretty meaningless. Then we moved on to the 'war on women' which apparently means that statistical analysis shows that women in some situations get paid less than men. Deplorable certainly, but not what someone in the trenches a century ago would have recognized as warfare.

Recently I read a newspaper report where a city council had made door-handles compulsory on new buildings because they are easier for handicapped people to use. This has become a 'War on Doorknobs'. Understandable perhaps, because 'Unfavourable administrative policy' is more accurate but likely to attract fewer readers. Nevertheless we may need a new word for the real thing which involves bombs, death and bullets rather than changes to subsection c(2). of page 241 of the building code.

Suggestions anyone?
5 March 2014
The Juvey-whatsit thing ...y'know?

The other day I was reading an old article from the now defunct magazine 'Punch'. The text felt rather like hard work, and it took a moment or three to work out why. The article was from 1910, and therefore the language was slightly archaic. That was one thing - but the other was that the range of vocabulary and the sophistication of the grammar was immensely greater than is usual in modern English. Here's a random sentence:

From journalism he passed to politics, but here too the stormy petrel element in his character militated against enduring success.

Today a similar report would read something like 'After journalism he tried politics, but he kept getting into trouble there too, so the career change was not a success.' This is a trend which those who study the evolution of English have noted for a while. The language is getting simpler - or 'juvenilized' as academics put it. Long words and complex structures are dropping out of use, and forms once used by children and teenagers are now standard English. Consider these two phrases: 'Were I to ask to whom he had spoken...', or 'It was I'.

In modern language the subjunctive, the object personal pronoun and the subject personal pronoun would be dropped or used incorrectly (for a given value of 'incorrectly'), and the preposition shoved to a more convenient part of the sentence. The end result would sound like this: 'If I asked who he had spoken to ...' and 'It was me'.

There are two trends working against sophisticated English - one is the anti-intellectual trend (oh, the irony) fashionable among the intelligentsia, and the other is the media's fascination with youth and 'teen-speak'. Also, most media try to reach the widest possible audience, and do this by aiming at the lowest common denominator. In terms of language this means that the denominator gets lower and more common over time.

Yet oddly enough, part of the effect is to make the audience work harder. The other day a 'celeb' remarked in an interview 'It was so like ... you know. His thing is kind of unreal, so incredible. It's just all him.' Good luck with extracting the meaning from that. I'm sticking with the 1910 crossword.
10 January 2014
Diminutives under the microscope.

According to 'Oxford Today' our word of the year for the recently departed 2013 is 'selfie'; the act of photographing oneself or the picture thus produced. There's been a lot of anguish among certain media types about how this word shows that modern people regard themselves as the centre of the universe. However, our interest is not in pejorism (the belief that the world is getting worse) or in solipsism (the belief that one is indeed the centre of the universe), but in the '-ie' suffix at the end of the word.

An 'ie' suffix is often a diminutive in that it makes the subject seem smaller, even as it might make the word itself become longer. Consider 'Annie' for 'Ann', or 'doggie' for 'dog' as examples, or that in Australia (where the word 'selfie' is reckoned to have originated) cans of beer are affectionately known as 'tinnies'. Most languages have a diminutive form of a noun - the German '- chen' and the Dutch '-je' being just two. However, English being English, the language does not have one diminutive form, but around half a dozen.

There's the '-ie' form we've just mentioned, which is often written with a 'y' in words such as 'mummy' and 'kitty', but there's no reason to stop there. We also use the French '-ette', as in 'kitchenette' or 'cigarette', or shrink the diminutive into 'let' or just 'et' with words like 'piglet' or 'helmet'. However, there's still the old Anglo-Saxon words to consider, and their diminutive form of '-ling'; among them 'princeling', 'sapling' and 'darling' (from dear-ling'). Of course, the diminutive does not have to be a suffix. We also have items such as minivans and micro-computers.

When importing diminutives, the English language has been and remains remarkably indiscriminating. We have the Spanish 'peccadillo' for a minor offence, such as smoking a cigarillo in someone's flatlet. Another diminutive becoming popular in colloquial language is the Italian '-ino' (as in 'can I have a momentino of your time?'). It seems that which diminutive comes into popular usage, and what language it it taken from, is pretty random. Why, for example, do we observe a hottie in a miniskirt, and not a hotchen in a skirtette? Perhaps if the word had originated in another part of the world, solipsists with digital cameras might even now be posting their 'selfinos' or 'selfkos' on Facebook.)
10 November 2013
A healthy lifetime guarantee by a real person

Have you ever seen one of those advertisements which feature 'real people' who somehow get really excited about soap power or shoe polish? Perhaps you thought that these 'real people' were members of the general public spontaneously expressing their opinion. Perhaps they were, but remember that unless the advert features a cartoon or robots, actors are 'real people' too, and they are paid to appear excited about all sorts of unlikely things.

With the careful use of English an audience understands one thing while the meaning might be very different.

Consider a 'lifetime guarantee'. This is popular in advertisements these days because it makes the product sound wonderfully durable while actually guaranteeing nothing. If the product is guaranteed for its own lifetime, then when the product is dead, the guarantee has just expired. If it's for the expected lifetime of the product, why not just guarantee it for that specific time? If it is because the product is destined to die soon after being unpacked, then that 'lifetime guarantee' is the opposite of the durable promise it seems to be. Or perhaps you thought the guarantee referred to your lifetime. Well, as with the 'real people' in soap advertisements, your assumption might be correct or it might not.

Finally, for those advertisers who really like to live dangerously, there are 'healthy' food products. To get really technical, a 'healthy' food need do you no good at all, and can even be harmful. To meet the description of 'healthy' the product alone needs to be. If you were to eat a black widow spider in the prime of life, it would be 'healthy' food. But it probably would not be 'healthful', as a food which actually brings benefit to the eater has to be.

Since people have been confusing 'healthy' and 'healthful' for centuries, a litigation-conscious advertiser would probably ensure that a food described as 'healthy' is at least not harmful. Nevertheless, when you hear a particularly impressive advertisement, it's worth asking yourself what some of those persuasive-sounding sentences actually mean.
10 September 2013
It's how you say it ...

Quite often when I'm asked for the pronunciation of a word, a student tries to find the correct pronunciation by asking what word it might rhyme with. I sometimes go along with this, especially if the student does not know the phonetic alphabet, but one can't really use this method, and the word 'can't' is a good example of why not.

'Saint', 'aunt' and 'pant' are words that no-one other than a modern pop artist would try to rhyme with each other, yet in different parts of the world, they might all rhyme with 'can't'. I recall once in the western USA hearing a young woman being asked who was helping her. She replied 'Dad ain't and mom cain't.' This poetic phrase tells one that the speaker was several hundred miles west of her usual habitat, because while 'cain't' is used out west, westerners give you a free extra syllable with words like that, so 'cain't' becomes 'cayen't'. Visiting Britons are often nonplussed by the extra 'y' sound that comes after 'a' in those payrts, without realizing that most Englishmen south of the Humber river are equally generous with their 'r'.

An Arizonan can at least claim that 'ay' is how the first letter of the alphabet is pronounced. The English 'ar' is harder to defend. It's one reason why Englishmen get funny looks elsewhere in the world, when people who believe they speak the language cannot work out where the extra 'r' comes from in words like 'carstle', 'farst' and of course 'carn't'. North Americans and Yorkshiremen may not agree on much, but most will agree that these words are correctly rendered 'cahstle', 'fahst' and well, 'can't' with a soft 'a' and no extra alphabetage.

So when a student enquires about the rhyming of words for pronunciation, one should always first confirm what variant of English the student is endeavouring to learn. In some areas even a fine classic 'BBC' accent is useless. Hence the complaint of one Texan about the Harry Potter movies: 'They's Hanglash hack-saints ayre so thack ay cayen't understayind ah wayerd.'

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